How to pass CA smog test without losing all my money?
December 13, 2007 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Help! My car didn't pass the CA Smog Test and now the dealer wants $600 to bring it up to standard. What can I do?!

Okay so my car is a 2004 Toyota Matrix. I originally bought it in VA, new in May of 2004. I took it in to get smog tested the other day as a preliminary to getting it registered in CA. It failed the smog test (specifically in the NO, as in Nitrogen+Oxygen, emissions area). I brought it into the dealer yesterday and now they're telling me that its going to cost $600 bucks to add in some kind of Oxygen valve thingie. I asked why the car was failing the test and he said it's because in Virginia emissions standards are much laxer than in California. I don't have $600 to spend on this thing. I'm in a state of shock that a 2004 car isn't up to par on emissions standards. What can I do? I heard something about the state covering stuff like this for people with low incomes. Help me hive mind, you're my only hope...
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth to Travel & Transportation around California (30 answers total)

In the United States, emissions standards are managed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as some state governments.

Some of the strictest standards in the world are enforced in California by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), following the 2002 enactment of California AB 1493, which includes regulation of greenhouse gases.

Basically, you were in compliance in VA, but cars sold there don't meet the stricter CA standard.
posted by Oktober at 1:52 PM on December 13, 2007

Is the car still under warranty? The dealer is the highest-priced place to get repairs done, so you need to track down a good independent mechanic in your area. There is a "find a recommended mechanic" dealie on the Cartalk website you should search. Also ask co-workers and friends for recommendations.
posted by Joh at 1:52 PM on December 13, 2007

Your car should have an emissions warranty that lasts a very, very long time. I'd look into that.
posted by zsazsa at 1:54 PM on December 13, 2007

Would this program apply to you?

Qualified motorists can receive up to $500 in emissions-related repairs to help their vehicles pass their Smog Check inspection. Approved applicants must take their vehicles to a Gold Shield repair station for repairs. Gold Shield stations are licensed Smog Check facilities that are independently owned and under contract with the State of California. These stations must meet higher testing and repair standards than regular test and repair stations.

More info and eligibility requirements are at the CA Dept of Consumer Affairs site.
posted by ALongDecember at 1:55 PM on December 13, 2007

My car had a 3 year warranty that expired in May. It's got less than 24,000 miles on it though. The dealer says it's not under warranty anymore, are they lying or am I really that fucked?
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 1:58 PM on December 13, 2007

The $500 program does not apply to me as my car has never been registered in CA before.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 1:59 PM on December 13, 2007

My car had a 3 year warranty that expired in May.

That seems pretty unambiguous.

The dealer says it's not under warranty anymore, are they lying or am I really that fucked?

Why would they lie? As far as I know, they get paid by the manufacturer to do those warranty repairs.
posted by grouse at 2:00 PM on December 13, 2007

Your car may an EGR valve, it's part of an emissions control system known as Exhaust Gas Return, and it essentially causes some exhaust gases to be rerouted through the engine, in order to reduce Nitrous Oxide emissions. Should be a cheap repair at any independent mechanic, but have them pull the codes to make sure that's what the problem is.

Any modern car should pass emissions in any state - AFIK, specific "California Emissions" packages haven't been offered since the early 90s.

My guess is that you have a bad sensor, as modern emissions checks plug into the car's computer (as opposed to a probe in the exhaust pipe, ahem) and a mechanic who is NOT the dealer, and NOT a chain like Firestone or Jippy Lube should be able to quickly diagnose and solve the problem in your relatively young car. I wouldn't expect a sensor even an EGR valve replacement to exceed $250 from a mechanic.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:05 PM on December 13, 2007

Seconding Cartalk's "find a recommended mechanic"--last time I got a heart-stoppingly high dealer estimate, I found a mechanic on that website who gave me prices that were about 60% lower and left off all the unnecessary repairs.

Since I see you're in the LA area, I'll go ahead and mention that the shop is called Terry's Service, and they're located in Torrance. They've never steered me wrong. I'm sure there are other equally excellent mechanics on the Car Talk website.
posted by fermion at 2:09 PM on December 13, 2007

Looking back, the extra-long parts of the emissions warranty only covers the catalytic converter, onboard diagnostics, and computer. Sorry if I mislead.
posted by zsazsa at 2:12 PM on December 13, 2007

My experience is that if you have a bad sensor that is affecting emissions, you'd have a check engine light on. If not, I'm suspicious. You said they need to "add in" something. That's ultra suspicious. You shouldn't need to add anything to a three year old car to be emissions-compliant. Did they give you a piece of paper that says what you need? Something more specific than "oxygen valve thingie" would help me work out how much it should cost to replace one : )
posted by autojack at 2:12 PM on December 13, 2007

"Oxygen valve thingie"

Oxygen sensor? That could make sense, as an improper fuel mixture in you engine could lead to NOx production.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:15 PM on December 13, 2007

Just emailed the dealer. He's sending over the list of what needs to happen. But I have no check engine light on...
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 2:17 PM on December 13, 2007

Oktober writes "Basically, you were in compliance in VA, but cars sold there don't meet the stricter CA standard."

A Toyota sold in the United States in 2004 should certainly meet California emissions standards. There haven't been multiple emissions models exported to this country for at least 10 years.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:17 PM on December 13, 2007

This is what the dealer says:

"The technician is recommending replacing the Mass air flow meter and also replace two O2 (oxygen) sensors and perform a smog pretest. Jon, your responsibility would be the O2 sensor replacement. The O2 sensors are recommended to be replaced because they are creating a lean condition causing the temperature to rise and the carbon dioxide amount to be high."

But I'm talking to a mechanic who says maybe all I needed to do was drive around for 15 minutes before I got my car smog tested. He also says that usually when a lean condition happnes a check engine light comes on. I am so confused and so is the mechanic, no one knows what needs to happen except the dealer who wants to molest me financially.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 2:28 PM on December 13, 2007

The most expensive oxygen sensor for a Matrix is the one that goes behind the catalytic converter. It costs $111. Changing it involves unscrewing the old one from the pipe, unplugging it from the wiring harness, and screwing in a new one. Is their labor rate $500/hour?
posted by autojack at 2:28 PM on December 13, 2007

PostIronyIsNotaMyth writes "But I'm talking to a mechanic who says maybe all I needed to do was drive around for 15 minutes before I got my car smog tested. "

Yeah. Definitely do that. Take it on the freeway for a little while, then bring it into a smog place. I'm surprised the tester at the place you had it smogged didn't advise you to try this.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:32 PM on December 13, 2007

There is no way all three of those sensors would be bad and have the car run fine and show no check engine light. At least, no way that I can see. I'm just a shade-tree mechanic, though.

Admittedly, the official Toyota OEM part prices are almost $150 for each of those three parts. So if you buy Toyota parts, that's $450 right there. There's your $600, when you throw in some labor. Bosch Oxygen sensors for your car are $78 and $58, respectively. A non-OEM MAF sensor is still around $140.

It's true that you always want to do the smog test when the engine is hot. If you only had it running for a few minutes before you got to the smog test, or if you had to wait and let it sit around for awhile before they tested it, you're more likely to have a problem.

If I were you, I would first go out and drive the car for 15-30 minutes, and then go get it tested. If it still fails, take it to a regular non-dealer mechanic, preferably one who also does smog checks, and ask them to figure it out. It's in their interest to fix it and re-test you, and make sure you pass. Fermion's shop recommendation might be a good one, or else I've found to be a good resource for this sort of thing.
posted by autojack at 2:38 PM on December 13, 2007

Gonna do the 15 minute thing. Thank you guys, you have been a lifesaver.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 2:44 PM on December 13, 2007

The MAF sounds like bullshit to this shadetree mechanic. Typically if the MAF failed it would cause severe problems, cause the computer to go into a "limp mode", or at least throw a CEL.
posted by kableh at 2:44 PM on December 13, 2007

I have a friend who is a former Toyota salesman and also a more experienced mechanic than me. I've just emailed him about this to see what his thoughts are.
posted by autojack at 2:46 PM on December 13, 2007

If the MAF was bad, I think you'd notice it in performance.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:57 PM on December 13, 2007

Another shadetree mechanic here to chime in on the MAF issue. I know nothing about the Matrix's engine, but on my VW the MAF failed silently, without a check engine light or causing the car to go into limp mode. In my case the car gradually (very gradually, over several months) lost power until I could no longer maintain 55 mph going uphill on the freeway. Your MAF may be functioning partially (although not well enough to meet Toyota specs i.e. "bad"), so the performance loss might not be severe enough for you to have noticed yet.

... but whether the MAF is actually bad or not may be a moot point, since from the dealer's email it sounds like they're not going to make you pay for it ("Jon, your responsibility would be the O2 sensor replacement. ")
posted by harkin banks at 3:12 PM on December 13, 2007

N'thing getting your car retested before making any expensive repairs. I brought a ten year old Geo Tracker to CA last year and had it pass emissions standards without a whiff of trouble. Something seems weird.

Follow everyone else's advice. Possibly also consider changing your oil and/or replacing your air filter (both of those are cheapies) before retesting. (I admit that I know nothing about cars and that those suggestions are wholly hearsay and may do nothing to improve the situation. On the bright side, they are cheap.)
posted by fuzzbean at 3:24 PM on December 13, 2007

I'm pretty certain your performance would suffer if both your O2 sensors were bad... rough idling and crappy gas mileage probably. I think your dealer may be feeding you a line. I'm biased though; I've had nothing but trouble with dealership shops. Also, make sure you have a tune-up before your emissions test as well.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:55 PM on December 13, 2007

Let us know if the 15 minute thing works.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:06 PM on December 13, 2007

The 15 minute thing worked. I'm really pissed at the smog test people, especially the technician working on my car. After it failed I asked him repeatedly what could have happened or if he had any suggestions, he flatly refused to even consider giving an answer on anything. Likewise there are no signs in the smog test place suggesting that you drive around for a while beforehand. I really can't help but feel this is lying by ommision. Thank you hive mind, you saved the day even if I am out $90 for a dealer's fee.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 5:27 PM on December 13, 2007

Oh! I'm glad that worked out!

By the way, I always recommend that people find a web forum dedicated to their car and hang out on it. It's a really great way to learn about the quirks of your model, and you can always ask that community when you have a strange problem. For me, it's or For you, I found Try to use that site to educate yourself a bit about common issues and things. Often there are sticky posts about things that come up all the time, and it can also be worth it to just read back a few weeks and see what other people are asking about. When dealing with cars like ours that people like to mod for performance, cutting through the annoying "rice boys" can be hard, but there's often good knowledge to be had, sometimes even from them.

Good luck!
posted by autojack at 10:24 PM on December 13, 2007

I just wanted to throw this in for information purposes. I work at the Nissan plant in Canton, MS and we make California specific vehicles due to the higher emission standards. In fact, other than the very low volume made with specific features for some other countries, all of the vehicles are either California units or Federal units where Federal means anywhere but California :)
posted by CuJoe at 12:05 AM on December 14, 2007

...and many states in the Northeast are now adopting the stricter Cal-spec emissions standards.
posted by redsnare at 11:59 AM on December 14, 2007

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